Monday, January 15, 2007

How To Turn Art Into Business

With the holidays coming, artists at Your Memory Lane are gearing up for a busy season of making individualized works of art for gift giving. The company, run by two brothers, makes one-of-a-kind art prints depicting a street scene interwoven with symbols of a person's milestones, memories and life history.

The personalized gifts business got its start several years ago when Bob McLean and his brother Don designed and printed a city building reflecting different aspects of a friend's life and gave it to him "as a goofy gift." The print was an immediate hit and people who saw it wanted one for their friends.

"Within a few months we were getting daily calls," said McLean, of Atlanta.

Just a year later, in 2004, the brothers, one a graphic designer and the other an artists' representative, decided to see if they could turn their sideline into a business, and they ventured into their first retail enterprise.

The Web was a natural for their business, McLean said, because customers could see the prints, read about the process and make their orders in one step.

McLean started by securing the domain name and then taught himself FrontPage and built the site himself. He says it took him about a month to get the site looking and working the way he wanted it.

To get Your Memory Lane included in search engines he programmed the meta-tags and hired someone to help with the rest of the process. McLean also researched shopping sites where he could list the Web site. Because of the nature of the business, which is more service-related as opposed to selling an inventory of products, he needed to list with shopping sites that would link back to the site.

Shopping Sites Help Stuff Stockings
The brothers listed the site with several gift-shopping channels, including, Present Picker, The, and The Web shop owners are happy with the traffic they get from these sites, which makes up about 40 percent of their sales. Still, most of their business comes from word-of-mouth, McLean said.

Your Memory Lane has become popular for all sorts of celebrations: birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, and of course, Christmas. When they started out, the company was selling about five prints a month. This year, they're up to about 30 a month, and during the holiday rush they typically see about a 30-percent increase in sales, McLean said.

"What separates us is the uniqueness of the gift," he said. "It's obvious that someone really thought about the gift, and it reflects that work."

Each print features between three and eight buildings on a street. Customers tell the brothers the story of the person they want to honor and they incorporate those memories in signs on the buildings, in the objects on the street and in other details.

"We try to make them as personal as possible," McLean said. He loves talking to customers about their piece because he loves the stories they tell. "We could fill a book with the life stories we've heard," he said.

The brothers take those life stories and define them down to their simplest terms — a golf bag leaning against a building, for example, speaks volumes to the person it's meant for, he says. Prints start at $345 and are guaranteed, as there is an approval process in which customers preview the prints. Customers are notified by e-mail when their proof is posted to the Web site for review. Attached to the proof announcement e-mail is a "proof corrections" form that is completed and returned.

For those who want to discuss the review process, there is a toll-free number prominently listed to ensure that there is no confusion about the policy. Likewise, the company is up-front about the time it takes to create unique prints, and explains clearly at its site that it may take up to 20 days from the order-date to receive the artwork, though a "Rush" delivery is available for an extra fee.

It seems, though, that for gift-givers who want to send a present that is more intimate than most, that timing isn't always the top priority. This year there is an increase of gift requests for and by people serving in the military in Iraq, Mclean said, and they've even had a request from Somalia (they changed the structures in the print to look more like buildings you'd see in that East African country).

"When people are so far from each other," McLean said, "they really want to do something special for the person they're missing."

How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, 5th ed.: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul

Pet Burial Is A Thriving Business